I’m fortunate to have quite a few friends with eclectic musical tastes, who continually expose me some of the best, albeit often obscure, sources for inspiration. They arrive as random selections sent with a simple “you’d appreciate this” note attached. Good friends that they are, they rarely miss the mark. Most intriguing is when a cluster of things from different people carry a similar theme, converging to a need on my part for some sort of musical action.
A few years back I received a huge dump of gigabytes of audio and video. Within it were some concert footage and performances this friend and I had been discussing; I consumed those quickly in an effort to keep that conversation going. Tucked amidst that dump however, was a copy of the movie Liquid Sky. I asked the friend about it because the description of the plot–“heroin-pushing aliens invade 80’s New York”–led me to believe it wasn’t really my thing (not a big fan of needles). Although my friend insisted I’d enjoy it, it took me several months if not a whole year before I finally pressed play.
Even though Liquid Sky was not my favorite movie by any measure, it was immediately apparent to my ears why my friend insisted I check it out. The film’s score was performed completely on a Fairlight CMI, capturing the synthesized undercurrent of the early 80’s New York music scene, more popularly seen in the cult classic Downtown 81, starring Jean Michel Basquiat. While the performances in that movie are perhaps closer to my tastes, none of them compare to one scene from Liquid Sky that I fell in love with, instantly:
The song grabbed me so much, I quickly churned out a cover version.Primus Luta “Me & My Rhythm Box (V1)”
While felt good to make, there remained something less than satisfying about it. The cover had captured my sound, but at a moment of transition. More specifically, the means by which I was trying to achieve my sound at the time had shifted from a DAW-in-the-box aesthetic to a live performance feel, one that I had already begun writing about here on Sounding Out! in 2013. Interestingly, the inspiration to cover the song pushed me back to my in-the-box comfort zone.
It was good, but I knew I could do more.
As I said, these inspirations tend to group around a theme. Prior to receiving the Liquid Sky dump, I had received an email out of the blue from Hank Shocklee, producer and member of the Bomb Squad. I’ve been a longtime fan, and we had the opportunity to meet a few years prior. Since then he’s played a bit of a mentoring role for me. In the email he asked if I wanted to join an experimental electronic jazz project he was pulling together as the drummer.
I was taken aback. Hank Shocklee asking me to be his drummer. Honestly, I was shook.
Not that I didn’t know why he might think to ask me, but immediately I started to question whether I was good enough. Rather than dwell on those feelings, though, I started stepping up my game. While the project itself never came to fruition, Shocklee’s email led me to building my drmcrshr set of digital instruments.
A year or so later, I ran into Shocklee again when he was in Philadelphia for King Britt’s Afrofuturism event with mutual friend artist HPrizm. By this time I had already recorded the “Me and My Rhythm Box” cover. Serendipitously, HPrizm ended up dropping a sample from it in the midst of his set that night. A month or so later, HPrizm and I met up in the studio with longtime collaborator Takuma Kanaiwa to record a live set on which I played my drmcrshr instruments.Primus Luta x HPrizm x Takuma Kanaiwa – “Excerpt”
Not too long after, I received an email from NYC-based electronic musician Elucid, saying he was digging for samples on this awesome soundtrack. . .Liquid Sky.
The final convergence point had been hanging over my head for a while. Having finished the first part of my “Toward a Practical Language series on Live Performance” series, I knew I wanted the next part to focus on electronic instruments, but wasn’t yet sure how to approach it. I had an inkling about a practicum on the actual design and development of an electronic instrument, but I didn’t yet have a project in mind.
As all of these things, people, and sounds came together–Liquid Sky, Shocklee, HPrizm, Elucid–it became clear that I needed to build a rhythm box.
What stands out in Paula Sheppard’s performance from Liquid Sky is the visual itself. She stands in the warehouse performance space surrounded by 80’s scenesters posing with one hand in the air, mic in the other while strapped to her side is her rhythm box, the Roland CR-78, wires dangling from it to connect to the venue’s sound system. She hits play to start the beat launching into the ode for the rhythm machine.
Contextually, it’s far more performance art than music performance. There isn’t much evidence from the clip that the CR-78 is any more than a prop, as the synthesizer lines indicate the use of a backing track. The commentary in the lyrics however, hone in on an intent to present the rhythm box as the perfect musical companion, reminiscent of comments Raymond Scott often made about his desire to make a machine to replace musicians.
My rhythm box is sweet
Never forgets a beat
It does its rule
Do you want to know why?
It is pre-programmed
Rhythm machines such as the CR-78 were originally designed as accompaniment machines, specifically for organ players. They came pre-programmed with a number of traditional rhythm patterns–the standards being rock, swing, waltz and samba–though the CR-78 had many more variations. Such machines were not designed to be instruments themselves, rather musicians would play other instruments to them.
In 1978 when the CR-78 was introduced, rhythm machines were becoming quite sophisticated. The CR-78 included automatic fills that could be set to play at set intervals, providing natural breaks for songs. As with a few other machines, selecting multiple rhythms could combine patterns into new rhythms. The CR-78 also had mute buttons and a small mixer, which allowed slight customization of patterns, but what truly set the CR-78 apart was the fact that users could program their own patterns and even save them.
By the time it appeared in Liquid Sky, the CR-78 had already been succeeded by other CR lines culminating in the CR-8000. Roland also had the TR series including the TR-808 and the TR-909, which was released in 1982, the same year Liquid Sky premiered.
In 1980 however, Roger Linn’s LM-1 premiered. What distinguished the LM-1 from other drum machines was that it used drum samples–rather than analog sounds–giving it more “real” sounding drum rhythms (for the time). The LM-1 and its predecessor, the Linn Drum both had individual drum triggers for its sounds that could be programmed into user sequences or played live. These features in particular marked the shift from rhythm machines to drum machines.
In the post-MIDI decades since, we’ve come to think less and less about rhythm machines. With the rise of in-the-box virtual instruments, the idea of drum programming limitations (such as those found on most rhythm machines) seems absurd or arcane to modern tastes. People love the sounds of these older machines, evidenced by the tons of analog drum samples and virtual and hardware clones/remakes on the market, but they want the level of control modern technologies have grown them accustomed to.Controlling the Roland CR-5000 from an Akai MPC-1000 using a custom built converter
The general assumption is that rhythm machines aren’t traditionally playable, and considering how outdated their rhythms tend to seem, lacking in the modern sensibility. My challenge thus, became clearer: I sought out to build a rhythm machine that would challenge this notion, while retaining the spirit of the traditional rhythm box.
Challenges and Limitations
At the outset, I wanted to base my rhythm machine on analog circuitry. I had previously built a number of digital drum machines–both sample and synthesis-based–for my Heads collection. Working in the analog arena allowed me to approach the design of my instrument in a way that respected the limitations my rhythm machine predecessors worked with and around.
By this time I had spent a couple of years mentoring with Jeff Blenkinsopp at The Analog Lab in New York, a place devoted to helping people from all over the world gain “further understanding the inner workings of their musical equipment.” I had already designed a rather complex analog signal processor, so I felt comfortable in the format. However, I hadn’t truly honed my skills around instrument design. In many ways, I wanted this project to be the testing ground for my own ability to create instruments, but prior experience taught me that going into such a complex project without the proper skills would be self defeating. Even more, my true goal was centered more around functionality rather than details like circuit board designs for individual sounds.
To avoid those rabbit holes–at least temporarily, I’ve since gone full circuit design on my analog sound projects–I chose to use DIY designs from the modular synth community as the basis for my rhythm box. That said, I limited myself to designs that featured analog sound sources, and only allowed myself to use designs that were available as PCB only. I would source all my own parts, solder all of my boards and configure them into the rhythm machine of my dreams.
The wonderful thing about the modular synth community is that there is a lot of stuff out there. The difficult thing about the modular synth community is that there’s a lot of stuff out there. If you’ve got enough rack space, you can pretty much put together a modular that will perform whatever functionality you want. How modules patch together fundamentally defines your instrument, making module selection the most essential process. I was aiming to build a more semi-modular configuration, forgoing the patch cables, but that didn’t make my selection any easier. I wanted to have three sound sources (nominally: kick, snare and hi-hat), a sequencer and some sort of filter, which would all flow into a simple monophonic mixer design of my own.
For the sounds I chose a simple kick module from Barton, and the Jupiter Storm unit from Hex Inverter. The sound of the kick module was rooted enough in the classic analog sound while offering enough modulation points to make it mutable. The triple square wave design of the Jupiter Storm really excited me as It had the range to pull off hi-hat and snare sounds in addition to other percussive and drone sounds, plus it featured two outputs giving me all three of my voices on in two pcb sets.
Filters are often considered the heart of a modular set up, as they way they shape the sound tends to define its character. In choosing one for my rhythm machine the main thing I wanted was control over multiple frequency bands. Because there would be three different sound sources I needed to be able to tailor the filter for a wide spectrum of sounds. As such I chose the AM2140 Resonant Filter.
The AMS2140 PCB layout, based on the classic eMu filter
I had no plans to include triggers for the sounds on my rhythm machine so the sequencer was going to be the heart of the performance as it would be responsible for any and all triggering of sounds. Needing to control three sounds simultaneously without any stored memory was quite a tall order, but fortunately I found the perfect solution in the amazing Turing Machine modules. With its expansion board the Turing machine can put out four different patterns based on it’s main pattern creator which can create fully random patterns or patterns that mutate as they progress.
I spent a couple of weeks after getting all the pcb’s parts and hardware together, wiring and rewiring connections until I got comfortable with how all of these parts were interacting with each other. I was fortunate to happen upon a vintage White Instruments box, which formally housed an attenuation meter, that was perfect for my machine. After testing with cardboard I laid out my own faceplates, which and put everything in the box. As soon as I plugged it in and started playing, I knew I had succeeded.Early test of RIDM before it went in the Box
I call it the RIDM Box (Rhythmically Intelligent Drum Machine Box). I’ve been playing it now for over two years, to the point where today I would say it is my primary instrument. Almost immediately afterward I built a companion piece called the Snare Bender which works both as a standalone and as a controller for the RIDM Box. That one I did from scratch hand wired with no layouts.
My current live rig with the RIDM Box and the Snare Bender (on the right)
While this is by no means a standard approach to modern electronic instrument design (if a standard approach even exists), what I learned through the process is really the value of looking back. With so much of modern technology being future forward in its approach, the assumption is that we’re at better starting positions for innovation than our predecessors. While we have so many more resources at our disposal, I think the limitations of the past were often more conductive to truly innovative approaches. By exploring those limitations with modern eyes a doorway opened up for me, the result of which is an instrument like no other, past or present.
I will probably continue playing the two of these instruments together for a while, but ultimately I’m leaning toward a new original design which takes the learnings from these projects and fully flushes out the performing instrument aspect of analog design. In the meantime, my process would not be complete if I did not return to the original inspiration. So I’ll leave you with the RIDM Box version of “Me & My Rhythm Box”—available on my library sessions release for the instrument.
Primus Luta is a husband and father of three. He is a writer and an artist exploring the intersection of technology and art, and their philosophical implications.
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Heads: Reblurring The Lines–Primus Luta
I don’t intend to discuss the “Blurred Lines” case in this post. There are plenty of folk already committing thoughts on the ruling. While the circumstances of the recent Thicke/Williams/Gaye case are not explicitly about sampling, they are indicative of the direction sample/copyright litigation can go in the future. When samples from a composition infringe upon the copyrights for the song, it is dangerous territory. Rather than focus on those dangers however, I’d like to exemplify possibilities of a more open (and arguably the intended) interpretation of copyright laws, by doing something I should have done seven years ago – put out my project Heads (dropping on April 1st, 2015).
My position has not changed from previous writings on sample laws – transformative sampling produces original work. My intent here is to present an artist’s statement on Heads that illustrates how transformative sampling and derivatives of it require broader interpretation; they should be legally covered as original compositions.
I’ve kept Heads in the vaults since 2007 while continuing from its artistic direction, all the while doing little tinkerings to convince myself it wasn’t done yet (it was). I had been pursuing analog technologies I swore would be the finishing touches it needed, to convince myself it wasn’t ready yet (it was). Then I lost 4TB of files in a quadruple hard drive killer power surge. The last Heads masters were among the 500GB that survived.
The project was born in response to comments made by Wynton Marsalis, dismissing hip-hop and denying its connection to the legacy of black music.
It’s mostly sung in triplets. So what? And as for sampling, it just shows you that the drummer has been replaced by a loop. The drum – the central instrument in African-American music, the sound of freedom – has been replaced by a repetitive loop. What does that tell you about hip-hop’s respect for African-American tradition? – Wynton Marsalis
I was offended as both a hip-hop and jazz head, so I set out to produce a body of work that showed the artistic originality of sampling and tied the practice to black musical traditions.
Prior to the analog experiments, I was modeling a series of digital Open Sound Control (OSC) instruments based on the monome, starting with a sampler but expanding into drum machines synthesizers and other noise makers. Together I called them the Heads Instruments. 95% of the composition work on Heads began with these instruments, all of which were built around the concept of sampling.
The title Heads, comes from the musical head, which is a fundamental part of the jazz tradition. The head is the thematic phrase or group of phrasings that signify a song; heads can be comprised of melody, harmony and/or rhythm. Jazz musicians use the head as a foundation for improvisation, a traditional form including the alternating of head and solo improvisations . Often times in jazz, the head comes from popular songs re-envisioned through improvisation in a jazz context, such as John Coltrane’s famous refiguring of “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music. In addition to being covers, these versions are transformations of the original into a different musical context. The Heads Instruments were designed specifically as instruments that could perform a head in a transformative manner.
Hip-hop attacks itself. It has no merit, rhythmically, musically, lyrically. What is there to discuss? – Wynton Marsalis
I was a bit annoyed at Marsalis, just how much is illustrated by the opening track of Heads, “Tony Wynn,” eponymously named after the contemporary jazz saxophonist, who, like Marsalis, feels that hip hop is not music. In it a character berates his friend for bringing up Wynn’s position. On the surface the song talks trash, but musically it makes layers of references.
First, the song’s format (down to the title) is a nod to the Prince tune “Bob George.” In his song, Prince parodies a character berating a girlfriend for being with Bob George. The voice of the character in “Tony Wynn” and some of his comments come straight from Prince’s song, but the work as a whole is not a direct cover of “Bob George.”
“Tony Wynn” is undeniably influenced by the Minneapolis sound, that eclectic late 1970s and early 80s scene that blend of funk, rock, and synthpop, but how the track arrives there is complicated. It does contain a Prince sample, but not from “Bob George.” The sample is played in a transformative manner, chopping a new riff different from the source material. It also includes a hit from another song, a sample of only one note, yet one identifiable as signature. The drums are ‘played’ in what could be described as the Minneapolis vibe. You can also hear a refrain that mimics yet another song. All of these sampled parts create a new head, to which I added instrumental embellishments with co-conspirator Dolphin on bass, synth, and the killer Prince-esque guitar solo.
The track represents a hodgepodge of Prince influences, but because those influences are so varied, none can be individually identified as the heart of “Tony Wynn.” Furthermore, at the bridge all of the samples get flipped on each other, some re-sampled and performed anew. Nothing can be pinned down as an infringement on technicalities, without taking into account the full context of the transformation. While “Tony Wynn” is heavily influenced by Prince, it is not a Prince song.
Rap Rap Rap
The second track on Heads,”Rap Rap Rap,” features Murda Miles and Killa Trane. I chose its title and head to reference the 1936 Louis Palma song “Sing Sing Sing,” made popular by the Benny Goodman Band. Coming out of the big band era, the song is closer to a traditionally composed Western standard, the heavy percussions however distinguish it. While you will find no samples of sound recordings from any version of “Sing Sing Sing” in “Rap Rap Rap,” it still represents the primary sample head used.
The opening percussive phrases are influenced by rhythmic hand games—an important but often overlooked precursor to hip hop discussed in Kyra Gaunt’s The Games Black Girls Play: Learning the Ropes from Double-Dutch to Hip-Hop. Here the rhythm sets the pace before charging into the head with a swing type of groove as the two featured artists, Murda Miles on trumpet and Killa Trane on sax, call out the head. What distinguishes these horns however, is that they are both sample based.
The song’s head is still based on “Sing Sing Sing,” but for the dueling horn parts the samples come from the recordings of Miles Davis and John. While Davis and Coltrane played together at a fair number of sessions, these samples come from two divergent sources from their individual catalogs. I chopped, tuned and arranged them for performance so that they could play in tune with the head.
The opening half of “Rap Rap Rap” sees both sticking to the head with little flourishes, but at the half way mark, the accompaniment changes to a distinct hip-hop beat still firmly rooted in the head. The two horns shift here as well, trading bars in a way that nods to both jazz and rap. The phrasing of the sample performance itself mimics a rapping cadence here, bridging the gap between the two traditions.
The head for next track “La Botella” (The Bottle), uses a popular salsa motif as the head, accentuated by a son influenced percussive wall of sound. The percussions vary from live tracked percussions to percussion samples to percussive synthesis. I performed many of the percussive sounds utilizing the Heads Instruments sequencer, which lends itself to the slightly off—while still in the pocket—swing.
The format of this particular head allowed for an expanded arrangement, through which I nod to the Afro-Cuban influence in the African American tradition, from jazz to hard soul/funk to rock and roll. Son evolved from drumming traditions that have their own forms of the head. There is a duality in these two traditions that pairs a desire for tightness with a looseness in spirit, and this tension continues into musics influenced by them. The percussions on “La Botella” carry that duality. The collective drums sound as an instrument, while each individual drum can be aurally isolated.
The actual samples in the song come from vocal bits of The Fania All-Stars, but the true Fania mark I emulate on “La Botella” is the horn section. They sound nowhere near as good—let’s just get that out of the way—but the role they play comes directly from the feel of a classic Fania release. Could the horns actually be attributable to a single source? I doubt it, but more importantly, they operate only as a component of the song itself, placing this inspiration in a different musical context.
“Sound Power” fully embraces ‘sound’ as a fundamental musical object. Sounds in and of themselves can be understood as heads. The primary instrument I used on “Sound Power” is the sound generator of the 4|5 Ccls Heads Instrument. 4|5 Ccls is an arpeggiator modeled after John Coltrane’s sketches on the cycle of fifths. I tend to think of such sounds in relationship to the latter Coltrane years when he was using his instrument as a sound generator, clustering notes together and condensing melody.
Similarly, arpeggiators group notes into singular phrases which can be interpreted as heads. The head on “Sound Power” does not push the possibilities to the extreme, as Coltrane did; it remains constrained within a rhythmic framework. However, it shows the power of sound as fundamental. All of the drums, percussive elements, bass and harmonies flow from the head, accentuated by heavyweight vocal chops from the Heads Instrument scratch emulator.
The intro to “Come Clean” marks a turning point in the album. The first four tracks present are technical feats to illustrate the point. “Come Clean” doesn’t slack off. Musically this track is the closest to the “Blurred Lines” case; notably, other than the intro, it contains no sample. It’s head, however, comes from the Jeru the Damaja song “Come Clean” produced by DJ Premier. I did an extensive breakdown on the technical details of “Come Clean” on Avanturb a few years ago; my online installation shows how (and for how long) I have been contemplating this track. But to paraphrase the sample here, the true power of music is helping the listener realize the breadth of their own existence in this universe. My use of the song is very intentional, and I deliberately change its themes for the album.
For “Come Clean,” I worked with percussionists Zach and Claudia who studied in the Olatunji line of drumming. They noted the physical timing challenges getting used to the song’s unique head, but, once they locked in, the head held its own. That exemplifies the power of this means of composing – new original ideas which can push music’s possibilities.
As an artist, I advocate for the interpretation of copyright laws so that someone cannot sue because three notes of a song appear in one they own, or because a sound from the recording the record company convinced the artist to sign over to them for pennies was repitched and played into a melody. I know that arriving to music via these methods can push the traditions further, everything copyright laws were written to encourage. If we don’t change the way we think about copyright, the ability to create in this manner will be lost in litigation.
Primus Luta is a husband and father of three. He is a writer and an artist exploring the intersection of technology and art, and their philosophical implications. He maintains his own AvantUrb site. Luta was a regular presenter for Rhythm Incursions. As an artist, he is a founding member of the collective Concrète Sound System. Recently Concréte released the second part of their Ultimate Break Beats series for Shocklee.
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“SO! Reads: Jonathan Sterne’s MP3: The Meaning of a Format”-Aaron Trammell
“Remixing Girl Talk: The Poetics and Aesthetics of Mashups”-Aram Sinnreich
The Blue Notes of Sampling– Primus Luta